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Trying On a Helmet Law : Safety: Uncool is the verdict of most young bicyclists asked about the bill aimed at protecting them. They chafe at being told what to do.


Brett Humphrey, a 17-year-old from Anaheim Hills who likes to race his mountain bike at a track in Orange, thinks a helmet would make him "look like a big Martian."

Orange High School freshman Nick Russell complained about the inconvenience of the plastic and foam lids. It's "just one more thing to carry around," he said as he munched on a pizza crust during lunch.

So if Gov. Pete Wilson approves a controversial bill headed for his desk that requires anyone under 18 to wear a helmet while riding a bicycle on public property, it's clear there will be a lot of unhappy kids in Orange County.

Because when it comes to cool--and for riders under 18, what matters more?--helmets are decidedly out.

"Most kids just don't want to wear them simply because they don't look cool," explained Gary Hoisington, owner of Team Bicycles in Huntington Beach. "But the only way they can be cool is if they're voluntary. You force a kid to wear it, that's the sure way to make it not cool."

The bill, which was narrowly approved Wednesday by the Legislature, is expected to reach Wilson's desk in about a week; he will then have 30 days to sign or veto it. If approved, the law will take effect Jan. 1. In the first year, violators would receive only a slap on the wrist, but by 1995, there will be a $25 fine.

A spokeswoman said Thursday the governor had not yet decided what to do about the new law.

In testimony before the state Legislature, child safety advocates said bicycle-related injuries are the leading cause of death and brain damage among children ages 5 to 14. In 1991, about two-thirds of the more than 600,000 people hurt in bike crashes were under 14, according to the Bicycle Institute of America. In California that year, nearly 18,000 children were hospitalized for bicycle-related injuries.

But many teen-agers take 14-year-old Morgan Barrett's attitude: "If you get hit by a car, what the hell is a helmet going to do?" said the Fountain Valley resident. "You're still going to get hurt if you go smack !"

On the other hand, Ron Robinson, also 14, said he sometimes wears a helmet and he does believe it could save his life. But he still didn't like the idea of a law telling him he has to wear the helmet. He was concerned that sometimes it messed up his hair.

"If I get hit by a semi-truck, I'll get killed anyway," he said. "But if I get hit by a slow car, at least I won't crack my head. . . . It's like a bulletproof vest for your head."

Dozens of Orange County schools have instituted policies over the past several years requiring students to wear helmets when they ride to campus. Some students have responded by getting waivers signed by their parents, by ignoring the rule altogether or by finding another mode of transportation to school.

In interviews this week, students said they would do the same if helmets become standard on the street.

"I won't wear a helmet because it's stupid," declared Amy Evans, 16, a soccer player who rides to keep in shape. "If I want to ride, I'm going to ride. I don't care."

"I just don't like the way (helmets) look on me," pouted Chris Ramirez, 13. If the law passes, "I just won't ride my bike," Ramirez said defiantly. "I'll have my dad drive me, or I'll just walk."

Many students tool around on two wheels only because they cannot use four. The bicycle is their only means of independent transportation and they ride mostly to school, the park, the movies, a friend's house or, sometimes, around and around the local cul-de-sac, popping wheelies and waiting for the day to pass.

These are not the avid cyclists and racers who speed along main roads and bike paths. For them, helmets are de rigueur.

Most bike clubs require helmets, though some opposed the just-passed legislation because they believe helmets should be mandatory for all riders or that money would be better spent on safety education than punitive enforcement.

The chief advocates of the new law were people such as Dr. Phyllis Agran, director of the pediatric injury research center at UC Irvine.

In a UCI study of eight cities in Orange County, Agran discovered that bicycle-related injuries were the leading cause of hospitalization among children ages 8 to 14 in 1991. Two children were killed in bike crashes that year, and 63 more were hospitalized after accidents. About half of those suffered head injuries; only one of the injured children was wearing a helmet.

"It's extremely difficult to ask (children) to look at the long-range impact of the safety effect versus the short-term effects of having a friend tease you. (With) this legislation, they'll have no choice," Agran said. "We've taken it out of the hands of the kid and we've taken it out of the hands of the parents. You have to do it. You ride in a car, you wear a seat belt. You ride a bike, you wear a helmet."

As the bell tolled one afternoon at Fred Moiola Elementary School in Fountain Valley, where helmets have been required since January, a group of seventh- and eight-grade students erupted in hoots of of laughter and taunts of "nerd" and "geek" at the mere mention of helmets.

Still, some of the students at the school were wearing them.

"I think the ones that don't wear (helmets) are really ruining their lives," said Nicole Thompson, 13, who owns a metallic purple helmet. "If they get hit, they'll look back on it and be sorry."

Nearby, 14-year-old Michael Cotter tightened the strap under his chin as he unlocked his wheels. "It's not cool," he admitted. "But it doesn't matter if it will save your life."

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